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‘Ordinary Angels’ Review: Hilary Swank and Jack Reacher Join Forces for a Faith-Based Drama That Leaves God on the Sidelines

Driven by their devout Christianity, the Erwin brothers — Andrew and Jon — have never been shy about the agenda behind their work. “Our mission,” it says on their website, “is simply to spread the Gospel further than it’s ever been using film as the medium,” and that mission has seen their Kingdom Story Company evolve into one of the biggest forces in America’s burgeoning “faith-based” sub-genre.

In light of the brothers’ stated purpose, however, it’s strange that they’ve responded to their success by making increasingly secular movies. Perhaps that’s just part of the Erwins’ plan to widen the tent and share Jesus’ light with people who haven’t necessarily sought it out for themselves, but it’s hard to overstate the difference between their self-directed 2012 debut — the virulently anti-abortion drama “October Baby” — and the latest feature they’ve produced, a hokey but harmless Hilary Swank vehicle co-scripted by the screenwriters behind “The Big Chill” and “The Edge of Seventeen.”

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God still plays a role in “Ordinary Angels,” but it’s more of a silent cameo than a bonafide supporting turn; the church still factors into this true story about a dying little girl in need of a liver transplant, but its teachings are only expressed through the community they bring together. The protagonist’s shaken belief is inevitably restored by a miraculous turn of events in the third act but, as the movie’s title might suggest, his prayers aren’t answered by a divine being from above so much as they are by perfect strangers right here on Earth.

Where several of the Erwin brothers’ previous biopics (e.g. “I Can Only Imagine,” “American Underdog”) have masqueraded as non-religious multiplex fare before making a hard pivot toward the heavens during the home stretch, this one — directed by “The Case for Christ” helmer Jon Gunn — stays the course from start to finish, and trusts that its core demographic will recognize the film’s underlying piety, even if the only gospel that it spreads is the good word of organ donation.

If not for its abject lack of humor, irony, sex, nuance, grace, politics, subtlety, and style it would be hard to identify “Ordinary Angels” as a product of its genre. This is unambiguously a faith-based film, but it’s one that places its faith in people instead of a higher power. That doesn’t make it good, but it does make it an interesting change of pace.

Maybe “Ordinary Angels” is so accessible to godless critics and church-going civilians alike because it focuses on a circle of hell that everyone in this country has to enter at some point, no matter what they might believe in: the American healthcare system. It begins at a hospital in the late ’80s, where a Lousiville man named Ed Schmitt (“Reacher” star Alan Ritchson) watches his wife give birth to a baby she decides to call Michelle, which means “gift from God.” Cut to five years later, when Ed’s wife dies in the same hospital, leaving the hulking freelance roofer to raise their two daughters by himself.

But this is an inspirational piece of Christian propaganda (disguised as it might be), and so Ed’s woes unfortunately can’t end there. It turns out that Michelle (Emily Mitchell) was born with biliary atresia, and will die if she doesn’t receive the same transplant that her older sister Ashley (Skywalker Hughes) got when she was little. Michelle probably won’t make it to the top of the waitlist by the time she dies, and even if she did, there’s no telling how the uninsured Ed would ever be able to afford her operation after paying for his wife’s care already wiped him out. “We charged your mama so much to die that you have to die too,” he seethes into the darkness after looking at the latest hospital bill.

But the parable of the drowning man reminds us that God sends help to those in need, even if they’re too distracted by their own despair to recognize the people who’ve come to save them. In the case of Sharon Stevens (Swank, doing her best at a nicer Erin Brockovich type), it would be hard for anyone to identify her as an angel in waiting. A belligerent drunk who insists that she’s “not an alcoholic, just a pissed-off hairdresser with a splitting headache,” Sharon is a deadbeat mom who tries to disguise all of her problems with booze and sequins. When that doesn’t work, she determines to find a reason to be here that’s bigger than she is, and since this is the kind of movie that sees divine providence as a narrative convenience, Sharon immediately lays eyes on a newspaper article about Ed’s situation and decides to make rescuing him her entire personality. “I’m good at plenty of things,” she tells Ed after insinuating himself into his life, “but taking no for an answer ain’t one of ’em.”

Ed is for all intents and purposes the protagonist of this movie, but Sharon is the engine that drives it forward — the immovable force that pushes the Schmitt family over every obstacle that’s placed in their path. While Ed spends most of his scenes cracking the knuckles on his massive American hands — even his fingers are jacked — and cursing at God from under his breath (“What I ever do to you?,” he grumbles at the stars one night), Sharon is calling or door-stopping every person she can think of who might be able to help little Michelle. While Ed is bemoaning that being on 17 different prayer lists didn’t manage to save his wife any more than being on those same prayer lists will be able to save his daughter, Sharon is organizing pledge drives and berating hospital officials.

“Ordinary Angels”
“Ordinary Angels”

It’s a kind of mafia logic: The system may be unyielding, but the individual people who form it can all be touched. Touched… by an (ordinary) angel, one whose crazed mono-focus on her latest mission is part of an effort to compensate for her effort to be a good parent to her estranged teenage son. Sometimes it’s easier to be a miracle for other people’s kids than it is to be a mother for your own (lest any of this sound a bit too layered and refined for an Erwin brothers production, please keep in mind that the scene where Sharon tries to patch things up with her son is soundtracked by “Losing My Religion”).

The truth, as Sharon’s friend helpfully diagnoses for her, is that her Energizer Bunny-esque compulsion to help the Schmitts is just addict behavior of a different and more altruistic sort, but addict behavior — when pointed in the right direction — has the power to change the world. I mean, who else could convince a hospital executive to forgive $400,000 in medical bills out of the kindness of her heart?

That bit, which is paved over with a very convenient cut, strains belief as much as anything in this story, and unlike the dramatic race that dominates the film’s third act (in which half of Louisville comes together during a massive snowstorm to help Michelle get to an Omaha hospital in time to claim her new liver), Gunn doesn’t have local news footage from the 1994 Kentucky Blizzard to back it up. But the desperation that Swank brings to her role is credible enough to forgive much of the funny business that surrounds it, and — in keeping with Kingdom tradition — “Ordinary Angels” is only hard to swallow because of the things that it doesn’t choose to dramatize. The less graceful moments between these characters. The people who Ed’s church might not be so eager to support. The recent death of a key figure in these events.

This is a feel-good story about finding new faith in unexpected places, and it’s determined to share that experience with movie-goers of all stripes. Given the Erwin brothers’ track record, it doesn’t feel too cynical to suggest that the film’s light approach to religion is likewise just godliness in another form: If you compel people to see angels all around them, then even the most troubled souls might seem like evidence of God, and even the most senseless of tragedies might seem like evidence that everything happens for a reason. You can pray to Jesus for socialized medicine, but don’t think he’s ignoring you when you get Hilary Swank with a southern accent instead.

Grade: C

Lionsgate will release “Ordinary Angels” in theaters on Friday, February 23.

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